While the "Halo" series has managed to deliver stellar action sequences and iconic characters, I think that one of the main aspects of the series that has always strongly appealed to me was the sense of mood, delivered by the visual style of the series, as well as the storytelling and Martin O'Donnell's terrific musical compositions.
All of this was most apparent in the first game, which was an astonishing mix of chilly silence and thunderous battles, with an air of sorrow that was, at times, genuinely moving. The first game also offered a feeling of isolation and dread that was palpable. The compelling backstory of the "Halo" universe is also a draw, although the books go into it quite a bit deeper than the games do. Unfortunately, the second game moved away from the style and feel of the first game, choosing instead to focus on being an all-out assault. While the third game was an action-fest as well, it did improve on some aspects, delivering a stronger story and a couple of quiet, emotional moments. While the second and third games were certainly enjoyable, they lacked the subtle details and sense of awe that made the first game so special.
"Halo 3: ODST" is the latest in the series, and a controversial entry in that it does not feature Master Chief, the central figure of the trilogy. Instead, the player takes on the role of "The Rookie", an ODST (Orbital Drop Shock Trooper), one of the soldiers of the non-Super variety that were occasionally seen battling alongside Master Chief previously (and were seen in greater detail in a deleted scene from the second game.)
"ODST" focuses on the time period within the second game, leading up to the start of the third. As the game opens, the Rookie and his squad are about to launch their pods down to New Mombasa, which has been overrun by Covenant forces. Unfortunately, as seen in the trailer, the Covenant ship jumps into slipspace, causing an EMP that throws the entire fleet of pods horribly off-course. The Rookie wakes up hours later in the city, which is largely deserted, aside from bands of Covenant forces that have taken hold.
While most of the city remains intact, damage has clearly been taken from the slipspace jump, and - aside from some street signs and other elements (such as car alarms that break up the silence), the city sits under the cover of darkness. Thankfully, the ODSTs have the VISR, which illuminates the darkness, putting a green halo around friends and a red one around foes. The night vision also makes it easier to spot smaller details or items, such as health packs.
Finding health packs is necessary, given that the ODSTs can not take the level of damage that the Master Chief can and do have to seek cover in the middle of battle. "ODST" is certainly isn't a stealth game by any means, but an all-out assault doesn't work particularly well and a player often has to approach battles with some strategy, which is more satisfying (at least in my opinion.) Some direction is given by information/maps within the VISR, as well as from the city's AI computer ("The Supervisor"), whose subtle tips can be seen on occasion throughout the game. Players can also download audio files that tell a separate story about what happened to New Mombasa from the perspective of an inhabitant.
The Rookie's focus is to find out what happened to the rest of his squad. As the game progresses, the character comes across different story objects - when found, the game flashes back to part of the story for the other squad mates, and the player plays through the other character's story in their shoes. Essentially, there's the story of the rookie and the story of the other members of the squad that play out separately and eventually merge. While still not up to the level of the first game, "ODST" certainly offers the kind of chilling quiet and massive battle balance that the series hasn't really offered since the first game - the streets of New Mombasa at night are ominous and grim, with subtle touches giving this aspect of the game a desolate, isolated - and tense - feel, as the rookie comes across smallish packs of Covenant. The daytime scenes, on the other hand, are bright and warm, with epic battle sequences, including one that spans across a local nature reserve.
Many were initially skeptical of "ODST" - a game that was first envisioned as an expansion (although still is shorter than most full games) that didn't offer play as the Master Chief - yet, still for full price. After playing through the game, I still feel that the price is a little rich, but on the other hand, "ODST" does a lot of things quite right. That's not to say that the game doesn't have flaws, but it did exceed my expectations in more than a few ways.
While taking away some weapons common to the series and adding others seems questionable at first, the change in the line-up never seemed to become an issue. I suppose one can look at it somewhat similarly to the "Bond" franchise: while I strongly hope that there will be another game with the Master Chief (especially given how the third game ended in the post-game scene), the chief had become quite powerful by the third game, and similar to how Bond was driving invisible cars in "Die Another Day", dialing things back a bit for a "reboot" is satisfying in ways. The result in this case is gameplay that feels more like the first "Halo" game.
While the health aspect plays a part (the requirement to not just storm into every battle and think about how to approach), the level construction also certainly helps in creating some intense stretches of gameplay - such as a battle through a tunnel system (partially in a banshee) or a rooftop battle with missile pods. The desire to give the night sequences a dark, "Blade Runner"-like feel also work quite well, and the vast difference in feel between the day and night sequences is a nice mix. While the graphics appear quite similar to "Halo 3" (since the two games use the same graphics engine), care does appear to have been taken to "dress up" the buildings and surroundings more, and if one looks, there are some amusing little details, such as broken token/change machines that spit out quarters and tokens into the night like slot machines.
Other elements work superbly as well, especially Martin O'Donnell's marvelous all-new score for the game. Given that the two previous games were largely action-heavy, there were not a whole lot of opportunities for more subtle touches (although the scores were still memorable and enjoyable.) While O'Donnell's work for "ODST" still doesn't match his work for the original game, the differences in gameplay versus the prior two games allows O'Donnell to do what he does best - craft music with richness and subtle texture, and music that does an amazing job getting the player into the mood and emotion of the moment. It's an award-worthy score, and will hopefully be recognized as such.
The attempt at creating a somewhat fractured story is handled well (and I thought the whole "clue object" element was fun), although character development comes up a little bit short. The only story aspect that I didn't care for was the last piece of the game, where a new/surprise character is introduced - following that interesting development is essentially a race to the end. The last stretch of the game does offer an enjoyable driving leg, but ends with a stand-off against a few waves of bad guys. It works out to an ending that, while not unsatisfying, feels a little abrupt. On the other hand, given that one knows how the rest of the story of the trilogy goes, the fact that the ending stretch of the game was at least enjoyable on a basic level should count for something, I suppose. Additionally, wait past the credits for another scene.
Still, as enjoyable as "ODST" is - and again, in many ways it's an improvement over the prior two games - the value is still a little questionable. $60 for a game that's not as short as an expansion - but not a full game, either - is a bit much. The game (as of this review) is $50.99 on Amazon.com and buyers also get a $10 credit for a future game purchase. That starts to get more reasonable - if the game was $49.99 and included a $10 coupon for something else (a pre-order of "Halo: Reach", a future Microsoft game, 3-mo free of XBOX Live, etc. etc..) that would have been a better value.
Overall, the best compliment that I can give "ODST" is that I wanted more - while some minor aspects of the game could have been improved (developing some of the supporting characters a bit more), this is otherwise a highly enjoyable game that again, does some things right in a way that the series hasn't done since the first entry. The end suggests the possibility of another "ODST" game, and I'd actually welcome that - although if there is a next time with these characters, hopefully it'll be a full game.
Graphics: "ODST" does use the same graphics engine as "Halo 3". However, it certainly does appear that attempts have been made to push things, as the style and feel of the game - both in the dark, rainy night sequences and bright daytime scenes - does certainly feel as if Bungie achieved what they set out to do. The night scenes are especially well-realized, with flickering neon signs breaking up the shadowy night. The VISR mode, with its outlines, is also quite well-done, and manages to feel helpful without being too much of an assistant. The daytime scenes are also quite beautifully rendered, as well. Overall, while the graphics engine is the same, care has been taken to make this a more dynamic-looking experience.
SOUND: As with the prior games, the developers have used surround sound to the fullest extent. "ODST" pushes the envelope during the action scenes, with the sounds of battle fully engulfing the viewer. Surrounds kick in for directional audio effects often, with sound effects coming from the rear speakers. However, the sounds of the desolate city streets at night are also quite enveloping, if certainly more subtle. Composer Marty O'Donnell's work here (along with some other artists) is outstanding, and delivered quite well by the surrounds. Sound effects seem punchy and more dynamic. There also seems to be a couple of new sound effects for certain actions.
EXTRAS: "Firefight" is a co-op mode (while it can be played over Live, there is unfortunately no matchmaking) that is similar to the "horde" mode in "Gears of War 2". In "Firefight", you and your friends battle wave after wave of randomly generated covenant forces. Weapons and health packs are generated after every round, but rounds can be quite long, so one has to use ammo wisely. Additionally, every round gets an additional "difficulty multiplier", such as "Tough Luck", where all enemies evade danger. 7 lives are shared between players and there are five waves in a round and three rounds in a set. Points are scored and medals are offered, too. There are several different maps (including night ones) to play "Firefight" in. While "Firefight" is best played with others, I found it surprisingly fun to play solo.
Additionally, three new "Halo 3" multiplayer maps are offered on the second disc, as well as all of the previously released maps. Finally, players are given an invitation to the "Halo: Reach" multiplayer beta, which will occur sometime in 2010. However, one does have to keep ODST to participate in the beta.
Final Thoughts: While the price remains a little steep, "ODST" exceeded my expectations pretty significantly. The game offers both an excellent (if not quite full-length) campaign and the highly entertaining firefight mode, as well as the reach beta invite and a few new "Halo 3" multiplayer maps. Recommended.